The Simpsons Showrunner On Treehouse Of Horror's IT Special, And The Role Stephen King Turned Down

Krusty the Clown as Pennywise in sewer drain in The Simpsons' Not IT special
(Image credit: Fox)

Spoilers below for The Simpsons' "Treehouse of Horror: Not IT" special, so be warned if you haven't yet watched!

For the first time in its 34-season run, The Simpsons at last delivered double the dose of trick and treats with two distinct “Treehouse of Horror” episodes, with the first being a full-length Simpsonification of Stephen King’s epic horror tome IT and its detail-adjusting feature adaptations, and the second being a more traditional tri-tale installment. But as viewers no doubt witnessed, “Not IT” was less of an outright spoof and more of a storytelling exercise that jettisoned Springfield’s population into the clown-haunted streets of King’s Maine stomping grounds.

CinemaBlend spoke with longtime Simpsons writer, producer, and co-showrunner Matt Selman about upping the “Treehouse” ante in 2022, getting a standalone addition to the show’s yearly Halloween antics, and how they approached the King special differently from how fans might have expected. As well as the fact that the prolific novelist and past Simpsons guest star turned down a second animated cameo. 

Why The Simpsons' IT Special Wasn't A Reference-palooza Parody

By and large, when The Simpsons aims to parody something, the parody is clear, present and effective, with heaping references throughout, especially the "Treehouse of Horror" parodies. But the creative team took a detour around this methodology with “Not IT,” instead affixing the characters to the bones of King’s dual-timeline narrative and putting more of a focus on the Homer-Marge-Comic Book Guy love triangle. Here’s how Matt Selman put it:

The IT one is not really a parody of IT. It's using the story of IT, like it's an exploitation of IT. A parody kind of implies that we have a take on the original story that's critical of IT, or that we're making fun of IT, but we're not really making fun of IT. We're just saying, 'Hey, thanks for the great story, IT. We'll run with it here.' And our great writer who wrote the episode, Cesar Mazariego, did a great job in trying to jam in all the IT stuff.

Though the episode obviously adheres to IT's more familiar beats, with Krusty the Clown's brilliant take on Pennywise anchoring it all (not to mention the beyond fantastic music), there aren't nearly as many Stephen King nods as one might expect. The lower turnout isn't due to a lack of source material, obviously, but was rather a pointed approach that avoided comparisons to other shows out there known for going heavy on King-specific references. Selman continued:

Honestly though, we didn't actually go the easter egg route so much with this IT thing. Because there's that show Castle Rock - which I've never seen, but I'm sure it's very fun - that is like a Stephen King Expanded Universe. You know, every diner is a reference to three books, and every sandwich, every car, right? Every radio station is Stephen King's 50s bebop groove-tone or whatever, and the men in the yellow coats are everywhere, and the gunslinger is somewhere. There are definitely Stephen King references in the episode, but it wasn't like other things we've done in the past where we were just like, 'Okay, let's jam in as much Stephen King as we can.'

Matt Selman certainly wasn’t off there, as references galore were spread throughout Castle Rock’s two seasons (both available with a Hulu subscription), though obviously not the exact same kind that The Simpsons would deliver. I daresay the cancelled drama would never have gone about attempting a Doctor Sleep Mattress Store gag. While amusingly acknowleding the setting's blatant King-ness, Selman said the writers were more interested in riffing on the novelist's themes and devices than delivering sight gags. 

Yeah, the whole thing it takes place in Kingfield was definitely a reference. Subtle. And, you know, we really just tried to take his style of storytelling and borrow that, because he's so good at telling stories about kid friendships and adults whose lives haven't turned out the way they wanted. In addition to the being the master of the macabre, he's sort of the master of the broken childhood, terrible adulthood genre. The man's a savant, he's a complete savant.

The showrunner also explained how they mirrored Stephen King's world by making Krusty's take on Pennywise genuinely menacing at times, as opposed to always playing into the joke, but then purposefully reworked some of IT's plotting to better fit the tale they were aiming for. One particular example of that is how the love poem is handled, and below, Selman talked about adjusting the adults' timeline as a reflection of their pasts. In his words:

In this, all the adults, they think they've conquered their fears, and then they specifically have adult careers that are based on the fears. The degree to which they've conquered them, like, Carl is afraid of aliens and then he becomes an astronaut, and Moe is afraid of ventriloquist dolls and then becomes a rock 'n' roll, Criss Angel-style, Vegas badass, heavy metal ventriloquist. And Marge is afraid of seltzer, and she becomes a seltzer magnate. So sort of, I guess, that's a good twist on the Stephen King thing which is that they really thought they were in the clear, and in fact they were given these great lives that came out of overcoming their childhood fears. So that's different, Stephen King.

The fact that Marge's seltzer water company specifically uses the verb "drown" in its marketing campaign is a particularly excellent choice that obviously would have been too broad for the source material, but is subtly chilling all the same. I also loved the way Bart and Lisa's personalities were swapped with Comic Book Guy as their father, but that's for another time.

Marge and the Losers Club in The Simpsons' Not IT special

(Image credit: Fox)

The Simpsons Cameo Role That Stephen King Turned Down

Considering Stephen King already leant his dulcet tones to the stalwart Fox hit back in the Season 12 episode "Insane Clown Poppy," fans might have expected the author to show up anew within the "Not IT" special. And that was apparently the plan where the writers and producers were concerned, but it wasn't meant to be. Matt Selman revealed King turned the request down, bemusedly pondering whether the author grasps how much power and appeal he wields. 

Well, you know, former guest star Stephen King declined to participate in this one. Yeah, he didn't want to do it. I don't know what his problem was. I don't think he quite - some of these authors, they don't understand that they have all the power. He's the brand. He must know that; he's Stephen King. So iconic. Like, I don't even think I have time to read all the books he's written in the rest of my life, let alone for one person to write all those books.

I doubt anyone would question how busy Stephen King is from one day to the next, so he could have been working on any number of projects at the time when The Simpsons reached out. It doesn't seem like he would have been outwardly put off by the role they'd asked him to play, either. Selman came back around to explaining the role they set for him, saying:

We wrote a part for Stephen King as a scary gravedigger who turns out to be a monster, and he said no. Which was ultimately good for us, because we didn't have time for that scene. I don't know what we would have cut. Despite the fact we're only telling one story in the 20 minutes and 40 seconds allotted, we barely fit it all in. We barely fit in Part 1 in the vague past and Part 2 in the vague present.

It would have been a form of non-poetic justice for a Stephen King cameo to get snipped out of a special devoted to one of his most celebrated novels. But no need to worry about that now. Maybe the author will be more into returning to the show if Kang and Kodos bring some Tommyknockers madness around next year.

The Simpsons airs Sunday nights on Fox at 8:00 p.m. ET (or whenever NFL coverage is over), with the epic “Treehouse of Horror XXXIII” set to debut on October 30. While waiting for it to arrive, head to our 2022 TV premiere schedule to see what else is on the horizon, and check out all the upcoming Stephen King movies and TV shows that are on the way as well.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native and an Assistant Managing Editor with a focus on TV and features. His humble origin story with CinemaBlend began all the way back in the pre-streaming era, circa 2009, as a freelancing DVD reviewer and TV recapper.  Nick leapfrogged over to the small screen to cover more and more television news and interviews, eventually taking over the section for the current era and covering topics like Yellowstone, The Walking Dead and horror. Born in Louisiana and currently living in Texas — Who Dat Nation over America’s Team all day, all night — Nick spent several years in the hospitality industry, and also worked as a 911 operator. If you ever happened to hear his music or read his comics/short stories, you have his sympathy.